Peter Biskind on How the Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood

Peter Biskind’s book succinctly captures the revolution that saved Hollywood and changed it forever. This documentary, however, is rather clinical.

In 1966, Hollywood needed saving. Long past its “Golden Era,” when Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz captivated the masses, the industry was producing bombs like Cleopatra and Hello Dolly!, at once overpromoted and threatened by television. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, based on Peter Biskind’s controversial 1998 book, succinctly captures the revolution that saved Hollywood and changed it forever. Unlike the occasionally racy book, however, the documentary is rather clinical. Narrated by William H. Macy, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls follows a timeline from the late ’60s to the mid-’70s, interspersing footage of films with both old and new interviews with stars like Dennis Hopper and Margot Kidder.

As the film reports, the studio system in the ’50s was quite unprepared for television. Young filmmakers slipped in as aging studio heads were increasingly bewildered as to what to do. To underline the point, the film includes a rare interview with youthful Roman Polanski. Sitting poolside with wife Sharon Tate, he holds forth: “The kids of today” demand that directors “Make it new! Make it different!” This difference had already been established overseas, where the nouvelle vague was winning over new audiences.

Director Arthur Penn showed his influence by the New Wave in his Bonnie and Clyde (1967), a Warren Beatty vehicle passed over by both François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Penn’s jaunty style and stunning, slow-motion finale revealed that the changing of the guard was underway. Along with Penn, the vanguard included Hopper, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola (some were trained by B-movie mogul Roger Corman). Their films — including Easy Rider and Boxcar Bertha — featured fast cars, brutal streets, and anti-establishment ideals.

It wasn’t just Hollywood where changes were going on. The general public was also dealing with paradigm-shifting tragedies like the Robert Kennedy assassination and the Manson Family murders. Bleak films reflected such current events, and viewers were drawn increasingly to dark underworlds. Among these was Coppola’s film of Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather. Though Paramount executives initially protested that the film “glorified” violence, Robert Evans got it made, and secured his post-Love Story reputation as well as Coppola’s. Against the odds, the film opened wide on a then unheard-of 400 screens, earning $80 million during its first run.

The Godfather opened the door for even more graphic violence and other untested directors. In 1972, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Polanski’s Chinatown altered generic filmmaking. The gritty New York of Mean Streets (1973) introduced the remarkable collaborations of Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, and Harvey Keitel, who went on to make the brilliantly disturbing Taxi Driver in 1976. George Lucas made nostalgia cool in American Graffiti (1973), and with Jaws (1975), Steven Spielberg introduced the summer blockbuster.

That film’s huge success reminded some executives of their purpose in life, and it wasn’t long before making money again became the industry’s primary aim. While Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola have become legends, they have also become what they once rebelled against: the system. They also declined to take part in the film version of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Director Kenneth Bowser does his best without them, using archival interviews from Scorsese, Lucas, and Coppola, all in their prime, but nothing recent.

Also missing is the book’s focus on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, though Bowser’s version hints at sexual adventures on and offsets (for example, The Last Picture Show‘s Cybill Shepherd admits to affairs with both her leading man, Jeff Bridges, and director, Peter Bogdanovich — though neither is a revelation). In contrast to the book, the documentary lets the romps take a back seat to the more viable substance of the ’70s, that is, the filmmaking.

The bonus disc, however, is another story. More Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll dispenses more information on drug use during the period, as well as the major players. Chapters titled “The Times” and “Sex and Drugs” provide a deeper exploration of national “atmosphere,” focusing less on Hollywood and more on the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. This context suggests that citizens were generally uncertain, and so, inclined to push for changes in the political system, not just in cinema.

A series of mini documentaries on Hopper, Robert Altman, and Bogdanovich provide a different sort of insight into the era. In one segment, “The Participants Strike Back,” screenwriter/director Paul Schrader softly voices his displeasure with the Biskind book. Hopper says he only read only one chapter, and Peter Bart, who says he did read all of it, says Biskind missed the humor in the chaos of the times. (It may also be telling that no one can bring himself to say Biskind’s name, referring to the author simply as “him.”)

In the second disc’s final chapter, Biskind himself discusses the book’s origins and the trouble he had getting access to Lucas and Spielberg. During his research, the author was welcomed by many and shunned by a few, and it’s clear that he presented his concept in a way that parallels the documentary more than the book, as a testament to the times, a celebration of a revolution, rather than a collection of gossip. By the end, it appears that none of the vitriol or rumors matters, when measured against the art.